Steel Boatbuilding
Thomas E. Colvin

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We look at a lot of books on metal boatbuilding.  This is one of the few that we really feel is well done.  Mr. Colvin is a true expert, having not only designed an enormous number of steel vessels, but also having built a large number of vessels as well.  Not only can you rely on the information in this book to be practical and presented in a straight forward manner, but also Mr. Colvin is one of the few designers and builders of steel vessels who seems to understand that a steel vessel can and should have its own aesthetic.  Unfortunately too many designers today are so used to designing boats intended to be popped out of a mold, that they tend to design everything to be easy to extract from a female mold even if it isn't built that way and is built in another material entirely.  While the underlying rules of aesthetics remain the same regardless of materials chosen, you can learn from Mr. Colvin that the details of a steel vessel should look right with the construction.  Many people go to extraordinary lengths to try to make a steel or aluminum boat look like a wood or fiberglass one.  Even when designing a gaff rigged clipper bowed schooner, Mr. Colvin will work out details so that when you see the boat in the water you know she's a metal vessel and she has her own inspiring beauty without imitating anything else.

Just as you can get in trouble trying to transfer what you've learned about aesthetics from other materials to steel you can also get into trouble trying to transfer construction thinking from other materials to steel.  Generally speaking you can rely on Mr. Colvin to show practical efficient methods.  Only in one area have I found a structural criticism.  There are a couple of illustrations of vessels done entirely with transverse frames.  Of course most of his designs show the much more efficient use of longitudinal stringers and widely spaced transverse frames.  This gives you the longitudinal stiffness you need and saves a lot of weight.

These days you better be sure that whatever else you read you on metal boat building you read this book first.  Why?  Unfortunately there are a number of "promoters" out there these days who either don't know as much as they think they do or are deliberately deceiving people.  How do you know who they are?  If they claim that their vessels are "indestructible" and can be bounced off of rocks or reefs and survive.  They either are not aware of the truth or are giving you a "sales talk" that they don't believe themselves.  There is nothing magic about metal.  You can build a strong boat or a weak one in any material.  It is quite possible to have a steel boat which is heavily built go ashore on a sand beach and be pounded so heavily that even if it remains water tight it is so badly dented and distorted, flooded with water, interior smashed up, and rig gone over the side that it is essentially valueless as it would be more expensive to rebuild it then to just build a new boat.  A very famous world voyaging vessel that is brought up to us over and over as an example of an indestructible steel boat had exactly this happen.  People point out that she is "sailing today".  However in fact the only reason she was rebuilt, and I use the term advisedly, is that she was a famous boat.  Her owner sold her for a token amount to a fellow with money.  In passing through several hands, as I understand it, people poured a lot of money into her and eventually she did "sail again".  But she is now in a museum and never would have been worked on at all if not a famous boat.  Mr. Colvin certainly described the reasons why a steel boat has some construction advantages but he would never claim you could go shoving rocks around with his boats with impunity.

Another claim to watch out for is the "magic method", usually portrayed as a method thought of by the promoter because he is so much smarter than the "stupid tradition bound" old fogies who design all other metal boats.  Usually these people claim that their boats can be built for less money and in less time than the boats designed by "stupid" people.  Whenever a client or potential client of your reviewer shows up with information from one of these promoters and asks about why this isn't a wonderful advance, I have always followed up very carefully and every time their claims do not work from a structural analysis or hours to build point of view.  In one case a promoter claimed that there was quite a list of structural elements that could be left out of his designs.  Interestingly enough they were all elements that would need to be lofted, and it was clear from his literature, which I purchased, that he in fact built his boats by eye.  This leads to the suspicion that he actually viewed them as "unnecessary" because he couldn't figure out how to make them.

Watch out also for the promoter who has a long list of clients who've run their boats on the rocks and survived.  Your reviewer has been designing boats for over 4 decades at this writing and has not had a single report of any of his designs "running on the rocks".  This would tend to indicate that either these promoter's boats don't sail well enough to keep off the rocks or their owners were very new to sailing when they built the boat.  Either way it doesn't sound like a great recommendation for these promoters that lots of their boats end up on the bricks.  Again, while I know Tom Colvin tries to design his vessels to be straightforward to build and rugged he would never make these grandiose claims and though he may be proud of boats of his which have survived extreme situations, he would never make the claim that lots of his boats run up on the rocks!

Finally you will not find Mr. Colvin trying to find a way to use patents and proprietary alloys to lock people into a particular method or material that would allow him to make more money.  Let's face it metallurgy is a very old science and while there are always special purpose alloys that can be formulated for particular uses, research long ago worked out the best combinations of characteristics for everything marine.  We have several times heard of "miracle alloys" which are significantly stronger than the alloys we work with every day.  In every case we have investigated the "miracle alloy" and found that to gain exceptional characteristics in one area it has sacrificed some other desirable characteristic.  Better to stick to the standard steels that Mr. Colvin recommends.

In summary this is the basic book for steel boatbuilding.  If you read another book and it contradicts Colvin you want to be very careful and cross check with other sources.  Of course other authors may have something great to contribute, but you want to make darn sure that they know what they are talking about.   (473 pages, profusely illustrated) (tm)  $34.95

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